This was an in vited paper for the Biblical Law Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, Annual Meeting, San Francisco, 22 November 1998.
Please note: This is an unpublished paper. It has not been prepared for publication. It is work in progress. So please so not cite it without asking the author's permission first.
I hope to publish this paper in a revised form in my future book Play the Man!
This paper was posted on the Web on 1
These days, I am teaching myself to say, every time
I open a page of the Hebrew Bible, 'This is a male text'. And then, 'Where is
its masculinity inscribed, where is it visible? How are the distinctives of
masculinity expressed? What image of maleness, what profiles of masculinity, are
embedded here? What message do the males inside this text receive about what it
is to be a man? And what message do the males and females outside this text
receive about how men should 'play the man'? This biblical phrase is the mot
juste, is it not, for masculinity is a performance, a performance of a learned
The Hebrew Bible, I am coming to understand, is written throughout in a language that is still imperfectly deciphered. It is written in ivrit, we all know that, but who notices that it is also written in gavrit, in the language of masculinity? Gavrit is of course not just a language with its own vocabulary (like kabod and boshet, gadol and gibbor, harag and hemit and hikka), but a thought-world with its own ideals and standards and conventions.
In this paper, I want to identify four distinctives of masculinity in Exodus 32p;34:
1. The Warrior Male
The fundamental characteristic of a man in Hebrew Bible literature, as I understand it, is that he should be a fighter, which means: capable of killing another man. And Moses is, at the most elemental level, such a man. The baby in the basket is in danger just because he is a male child, and the narrative of Exodus shows us how justified the pharaoh's fear of male children is: it only takes Moses two sentences to get from suckling at the breast to murdering an Egyptian (Exod. 2.9, 11).
Moses the lawgiver is not generally remembered as a killer. His youthful murder of an oppressive Egyptian is often waved away as a act of hot-headedness mingled with righteous indignation. In the commentators we can even observe, as Childs notes, 'a tacit approval of Moses' deed because of its passionate quality'.
I do not need to linger over the many associations of Moses with death and killing, for it is a particular episode that is before us. What is special here is that it is not the enemies of Israel that are the objects of his violence, not Egyptians or Midianites, but members of the Israelite company itself. Says Moses to the Levites:
Buckle on your sword, each of you, and go up and down the camp from gate to gate, every man of you slaughtering brother, friend and neighbour (32.27 NJB).
If killing is the quintessential male characteristic in the Hebrew Bible, killing lots of other men in company with fellow killers has to be doubly so, and killing brothers, friends and neighbours is a triple masculinity. The narrative invokes the image of the 'troop', the collectivity of male warriors that moves in unison and overwhelms the fears and fatigue and conscience of the individual soldier. Slaughtering brother, friend and neighbour is not a pretty picture, and all the worse because it is in the name of God. But it is the picture of masculinity this text presents us with, the image of the male that it inculcates into impressionable young Bible readers and confirms in more seasoned warriors who have long been gripped by the idea of killing, literally or metaphorically, brother, friend and neighbour for the sake of a cause. No one can be a disciple of Jesus, for example, without this very vision of masculinity: 'No one can be my disciple if he does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters-and his own life!' (Lk. 14.26).
The narrative equally signifies the importance of a chain of command in military affairs and underscores that to be a soldier requires obedience: everyone carrying out this massacre is acting under orders. Moses makes it an issue of a specific divine prescription ('Thus says Yahweh', a phrase rare in the Pentateuch), and the Levites act 'according to the word of Moses', another uncommon locution (only Exod. 8.13; Lev. 10.7).
The common bloodguilt of the Levites bonds them, and sets them apart from the rest of the people. 'Today', Moses said, 'you have consecrated yourselves (dy alm) to Yahweh, one at the cost of his son, another of his brother' (32.29 NJB). Some might think that the Levites were set apart or consecrated to Yahweh at some pacific ordination ceremony such as Numbers 8 represents, with washing and shaving and a change of clothes. Not according to Exodus 32, which portrays them as males, as warriors.
2. The Persuasive Male
When I was studying masculinity in the David story, I came to realize that persuasive speech was in ancient Israel a typical mark of male behaviour. With great success, David, for example, persuades .i./Saul ;that he is capable of withstanding .i./Goliath; (1 Sam. 17.34-36;), .i.\1 Sam. explains to Saul why he did not kill him in the cave (24.10-15;), and even brings Saul to admit that he has done wrong (.i.\1 Sam. 26.21;). These are effective examples of the .i./power of words;, not in any magical sense, but as instruments of .i./control;. To be master of .i./persuasion ;is to have another form of power, which is not an alternative to, and far less a denatured version of, physical .i./strength;, but part of the repertory of the powerful male.
Moses' masculine strength shows itself here in a speech of persuasion that has the effrontery to attempt to change the mind of God. Yahweh has announced that in revenge for the making of the molten calf he will annihilate the people and make Moses into a great nation (32.10). Moses displays his strength in a powerful speech (32.11-13), and Yahweh 'repents' of the evil he had planned to do to his people (32.14). Moses is not so successful, it must be said, in his second speech to Yahweh (32.31-32), though there is some confusion over whether this second speech was not altogether otiose: it seems that Yahweh, in repenting in v. 14 of the evil he planned against the Israelites, no longer needs to be called on to 'forgive' them, as Moses asks in v. 32.
Moses' third dialogue with Yahweh (33.12-23) is also somewhat indistinct, but it too represents an achievement for Moses' power. In this six-member dialogue, three speeches of Moses and three of Yahweh, it is Moses who makes the running and it is Moses who gets his way. It is an intercession in form, but it is also an act of power, for Moses wrests concession after concession from Yahweh. When he does not at first get his way, as when he is assured of Yahweh's mere 'presence' when what he wants to gain is knowledge of his 'ways' or purposes (33.13), he insists until Yahweh concedes, 'This very thing that you have spoken I will do' (33.17)-a very submissive speech for a deity, is it not? Even when Moses demands to see Yahweh's 'glory'-a most outrageous desire, which might be thought either to kill him or to make him divine-he is not entirely rebuffed; even if his request is not granted, it is not refused either. He may not see Yahweh's 'glory', but he sees his 'goodness' and hears his 'name'.
This is how a 'real man' behaves, runs the text. He is so adept with the weapon of words that he can take on any opponent, even the deity, and win-or if not exactly win, then not be put to shame.
3. The Womanless Male
Male texts do not on principle exclude women, but it is characteristic of them nevertheless that women are invisible. In the male world, the presence of women can be assumed, but rarely needs to be signalled.
Obviously, the two protagonists in this narrative, Moses and Aaron are male, and so is the only other named person, Moses' attendant, the young man Joshua. Yahweh is male too, of course (as Moses would have seen only too well if he had glimpsed more than Yahweh's 'back parts'), and he remembers his dealings with the males of old, Abraham, Isaac and Israel/Jacob (32.13; 33.1). The (male) 'sons' of Levi, the ideological cleansers, are the other active players who catch our attention.
To be sure, the men of Israel have wives and daughters with gold earrings (32.2), daughters who, they fear, will whore after foreign gods and make their brothers whore after them also (plainly, the males cannot go astray of their own accord, but only if they are seduced by women) (34.16). Perhaps the women are there too in the scene by the golden calf, when the people 'sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play' (32.6)-if that qjv means what we suspect it does, as the Good News Bible (Today's English Version) puts it so delicately: 'The people sat down to a feast, which turned into an orgy of drinking and sex'.
But on the whole, 'the people' (µ[h) in this narrative does not mean in Hebrew what it means for us. It is not the totality of the Israelites in the wilderness, but the males alone. We notice that it is the men who are focalized as the narrative opens: the 'people', that is, the men, saw that Moses was overdue in returning and urged Aaron to make gods for them. For Aaron responds to the 'people' by telling them to remove the earrings from their 'wives and sons and daughters' (32.2). The 'people' can therefore only be the men. If we have a vision, when we read throughout this narrative of the 'people', of sisters and cousins and aunts converging upon Aaron to plead for a golden calf, of stiff-necked women as well as men (32.9), of singing in soprano as well as baritone voices, of dancing as a mingling of the sexes, or of ground gold being forced down the throats of maidens and matrons and little old ladies-we have only to remember scenes of males-only education and entertainment and markets from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to adjust our focus. This is a womanless world. (You can say that the presumptive women, through being invisible, at least escape the ideological slaughter: the sons of Levi mow down only brothers and companions and neighbours, men every one of them. The women escape with their lives, which they can then spend usefully bewailing their lost husbands and brothers and sons.)
Yahweh too has eyes only for males. Whether it is beast or human offspring, he claims the life of the first male to 'open the womb' (34.19). If a female is the first offspring, Yahweh is not interested. (I do not know if the first male, even if the second offspring, counts as 'firstborn'.) If you want to keep your firstborn son, and not let him go into service in Yahweh's house, like Samuel, you need to pay Yahweh for him. And even if your sons have been 'redeemed', they must show themselves to Yahweh three times a year in an all-male ceremony (34.23). In short, males are important in the eyes of God, females are not.
The manifestations are various, but the interpretation is one, as Joseph would say. What is worth remembering of the past is what men have done. What is therefore worthy of note in the present is what men are doing. This is authoritative, this is God's attitude . That is the message the text has for men and women alike.
4. The Beautiful Male
Beauty is a masculine ideal in the ancient world; the evidence is unassailable. But is it to be found in our chapters?
There is an inkling of male beauty in the decoration of the men of Israel. 32.2 has Aaron inviting 'the people' (µ[h), who must be the men, to 'Take off the rings of gold which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters' (RSV)-though saying nothing, as it happens, about gold rings that might be in their own ears. 32.3 has 'the people' taking off the gold rings from 'their' ears-which also is not entirely clear, since it might be from the ears of the wives, the sons and the daughters, or might be from their own ears. 32.24 is unequally unspecific, in that it has Aaron declaring that he asked 'anyone' with gold jewellery to strip it off. But I am assuming that it is purely accidental that the men of the people are not specifically said to be wearing gold earrings. For in 33.4-6, the 'people of Israel', the men, put off their ornaments in mourning. In 35.22 'both men and women' bring gold ornaments, brooches, earrings, signet rings and armlets, for the decoration of the tabernacle. And it was both men and women who had 'borrowed' the jewellery from their Egyptians neighbours in the first place (11.2). In any case, even if the men in our chapter are not specifically said to be wearing earrings, their 'sons' clearly are.
The point is that men are wearing jewellery, which means adornment, to enhance beauty. If you can't imagine being regarded as attractive, you don't decorate yourself. Dressing up means that you have a certain image of yourself as worth looking at. The men of ancient Israel evidently felt the same, and there was no conflict between the heroic male and the prettified male.
In a world where there is, unlike our own, no important overlap in social role between men and women, there is no need for men to define themselves as masculine over against women, to follow what has been called the primary rule for men of our own time: Don't be .i./female;. There is therefore no inhibition on a man decorating his body.
Finally, a gendered reading of our text can perhaps offer an explanation for the famous crux in 34.30 about the shining of Moses' face. As a powerful male, who has had the supreme distinction of personal converse with God, Moses acquires astonishing beauty that not only dazzles his earthly conversation partners but perhaps also stirs in them unhealthy lusts. If the servant of Yahweh in Isaiah 53 had no beauty that males should desire (chamad) him, we may assume that if Moses has outstanding beauty of face he will be desired by other males.
The key term is the 'shining' of the face. It is an ordinary word for the shining of light, whether of the sun (e.g. 2 Kgs 3.22) or the moon (Isa. 60.19) or stars (Joel 2.10), a fire (e.g. Isa. 4.5) or a lamp (e.g. Job 29.3), or the wake left in the sea by Leviathan (Job 41.24 ). What can it mean when it is a 'face' that shines, or to be more precise, the 'skin of the face' (Exod. 34.29)? Either it must be that the skin is lit up from without, as when it is illuminated by a strong light, or that it seems lit up from within, as if the face itself is a light. The fact that Moses' face remains shining even when he is not gazing upon the light that is God's presence suggests that it is an internal light. Either way, the key question is, Does a shining face improve your appearance? If it does, we are in the realm of beauty.
An important text is Ps. 104.15
wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart (NRSV)
This has to be oil as a cosmetic (note its use after the bath, Ruth 3.3; 2 Sam. 12.20), and we have to assume that other people think you are more beautiful if your face is shining. If you are poor, oil is a food staple; if you can afford to splash it on your face you are well off. So a shining face is a sign of wealth, and we all know that in many cultures money is a powerful aphrodisiac. An unoiled face, on the other hand, is a 'hard' face or a 'tough' ('az) face, which is a sign of sadness or bad temper; if you are wise, you are happy, and your face shines and the natural 'hardness' of your face is transfigured, according to Eccl. 8.1:
A man's wisdom makes his face shine, and the hardness of his countenance is changed (RSV).
A shining face is an attractive face, and to be as radiant as a bride is to be beautiful, especially if the light is coming from inside. So too in Ecclus 13.25
The sign of a good heart is a radiant look.
Moses was a beautiful baby (Exod. 2.1); what wonder then that in the happy afterglow of intercourse with the divine he should wear a beautiful shining face.
These have been some notes for a gendered reading of the narrative of Exodus 32p;34. I tried to keep out of my mind as I read the profiles of masculinity I had drawn for other biblical texts, and to let the contours of this narrative shape themselves in mind. In the event, however, I found myself categorizing the evidence in much the same way as I had done in previous papers. It could be that I have let myself become locked into a grid of my own devising, or it could be that the image of masculinity in the biblical literature is really rather uniform.
I am very well aware that all these data need a lot more theorizing. I suppose that study of masculinity in the Bible is still in the stage that feminist biblical criticism was at in the 1960s and 70s, identifying and collecting the data, monitoring the language and the rhetoric of gendered discourse, and so on. But of course the theoretical structures of gender studies have been very much developed in the last 30 years, and the study of masculinity will have to work hard to catch up with where it is at now, while at the same time still doing the basic spadework on the data.